When I first joined my local gym they offered me a complimentary session with a personal trainer. Never one to turn down a freebie, I jumped at the chance to learn from an expert how to use all the exciting, shiny equipment. I was primed and ready to work up a sweat in an hour of relentless exercise. This trainer would save me from several years of inactivity and set me on the road to becoming a healthy, active, middle-aged man.
But the first half of the session proved to be a disappointment. I was expecting inspiration and positive instruction as I pumped iron to the Rocky theme. Instead the trainer gave me a list of don’ts. Don’t start exercising before warming up, don’t set the resistance too high on the machines, don’t opt for free weights yet, don’t think you’ll ever get fit if you have an unhealthy diet. One negative after another.
Christians should rightly celebrate the amazing grace of God. His grace saves the undeserving (that’s all of us) from our personal rebellion against God and from eternal judgement. What we shouldn’t neglect, though, is the vital training role that grace has in the life of a Christian. And rather like my free session at the gym, grace’s training programme begins with some negative instruction:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
Two things grace trains us to renounce
The grace of God that saves us also transforms us. God’s grace works to tangibly change the way that we live. One evidence of God’s grace at work in our lives is that we’re trained to renounce certain things. Or as another translation puts it, God’s grace teaches us to say “no” to certain things. So what exactly are we to say no to?
The scope here is wide-ranging. Ungodliness is anything contrary to the pattern of life laid down for Christians in the Bible. Our behaviour can be ungodly, for example when we break any of the Ten Commandments such as do not murder or do not commit adultery.
When I came to faith in Christ aged 24, one of the first things God’s grace taught me was to renounce my same-sex relationship and say “no” to same-sex practice.
Our thoughts and attitudes can be ungodly too. When Jesus interprets the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount he teaches that anger and lust are marks of ungodliness (Matthew 5:21-30). In one of his ‘vice lists’ Paul includes “impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” (Galatians 5:19-21). He also warns Christians about ungodly speech: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking” (Ephesians 5:4).
- Worldly passions
In our sex-obsessed world, we might assume this means sexual passions. But while sex is certainly included, the Greek term is more general. A worldly passion is anything in this world that people have a passionate longing for, good or bad. Some people are passionate about their career, others about money and investments, others about their looks or about a whole host of different things. I’m passionate about new technology and prone to set my heart on the latest ‘must have’ gadget.
Many things that we’re passionate about are not wrong in and of themselves. But as Christians we’re not to be motivated by the same passions that drive those who don’t follow Jesus Christ. We’re not to love what everyone else loves. We’re not to make anything in this world our ultimate thing:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15)
“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
Three ways grace trains us to live
The grace of God doesn’t only train us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. No, grace also teaches us positively to live in certain ways. Ways that please God, as we wait “for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
- Self-controlled life
The person being trained to say no to worldly passions learns to live soberly and with moderation. One mark of life in this world is excess. Alcohol, ambition, food, shopping, entertainment, physical fitness and beauty are just a few of the things that people relentlessly pursue and excessively indulge in. But grace teaches the Christian to live differently. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23) and the one who walks by the Spirit “will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
- Upright life
“The integrity of the upright guides them”, says Proverbs 11:3, “but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.” Grace trains the Christian to live uprightly, or justly. So we’re to show integrity and honesty in the workplace, in our studies, in conducting business transactions, in our relationships and friendships, in completing our tax returns, in playing sport. And we’re not merely to put on a show of right living for public consumption. No, what we are in public must be matched by an upright private life too.
- Godly life
Godliness is little taught in many of our churches and little practiced in many of our lives. Sadly the word has gained something of a bad press. Godly people are often assumed to be self-righteous, pompous, judgmental, stuffy, uninteresting, and generally not much fun to be around. I’m sure we can all think of people like that. But that’s not true godliness. To live a godly life is to live a Christ-like life. A life that bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our actions, thoughts, words and in our treatment of others; “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
How’s your personal training going?
The thought of grace as our personal trainer may lead us to think that we have no role to play in all this. After all, it’s a work of God’s grace. So surely I just have to let go and let God, don’t I?
Well, clearly not. The grace of God teaches and trains us, but we have to do the exercises. We have to work out our salvation as Paul puts it (Philippians 2:12). We have to make every effort to add to our faith things such as self-control and godliness (2 Peter 1:6). We have to actually say “no” when confronted with temptations to pursue ungodliness and worldly passions. But all our effort, discipline and hard work in response to grace will certainly be worth it, both in this life and the next:
“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8)